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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

X. George Gascoigne

§ 4. His achievements

In many departments of literature Gascoigne wrote the first work of its kind that has come down to us—the first prose tale of modern life, the first prose comedy, the first tragedy translated from the Italian, the first maske, the first regular satire, the first treatise on poetry in English. He was a pioneer, and, as a pioneer, he must be judged. Two of his contemporaries and immediate successors passed upon him just and yet considerate verdicts. Tom Nashe in his prefatory address in Greene’s Menaphon, “to the Gentlemen Students of both Universities,” writes

  • Maister Gascoigne is not to bee abridged of his deserved esteeme, who first beate the path to that perfection which our best Poets have aspired to since his departure; whereto he did ascend by comparing the Italian with the English as Tully did Graeca cum Latinis,
  • and R. Tofte says “To the Courteous Reader” of The Blazon of Jealousie (1615):
  • This nice Age, wherein wee now live, hath brought more neate and teirse Wits, into the world; yet must not old George Gascoigne, and Turbervill, with such others, be altogether rejected, since they first brake the Ice for our quainter Poets, that now write, that they might the more safer swimme in the maine Ocean of sweet Poesie.
  • These moderate estimates of Gascoigne’s achievements have stood the test of time, and the recent trend of criticism has been in his favour. His poems give the impression of a distinct, though not altogether pleasing, personality. He is the homme moyen sensuel of the time, with added touches of reckless debauchery in his youth, and of too insistent puritanism in his later days of ill-health and repentance; even in his “middle age” he is too much inclined to recount his amatory adventures with a suggestive air of mystery, bound to excite the curiosity of his readers and make things uncomfortable for the ears of the ladies; his manners in this respect are as bad as his morals. He was probably a better soldier than lover, but one has a suspicion that his own account of his exploits in the Netherlands does not tell the whole truth; he was obviously intolerant of discipline and little inclined to conciliate the burghers whose cause he had come to serve. As a writer, he was distinguished among the men of his own time by his versatility. N. R., writing in commendation of the author of The Steele Glas, after running over a list of the great poets of antiquity, says:

  • Thus divers men, with divers vaines did write,
  • But Gascoigne doth, in every vaine indite.
  • This dissipation of his energies over different fields of literature prevented him from attaining excellence in any one kind, for he had only moderate ability: the surprising thing is that he was able to do many things well—most of them better than they had been done by his predecessors, though in all he was easily outstripped by the writers of the age that followed. His prose style is easy and generally free from affectation, though he indulges now and again in the curious similes and balanced alliteration which, later, became characteristic of euphuism. As a metrist, he has a facility which extends over a wide range, but his fluency is mechanical, the regular beat of his verse often giving the effect of water coming out of a bottle. His long poems, whether in blank verse or rimed measures, soon become monotonous and tedious. The caesura in The Steele Glas occurs almost invariably after the fourth syllable, and is regularly marked by Gascoigne with a comma:

  • When vintners mix, no water with their wine,
  • When printers passe, none errours in their bookes,
  • When hatters use, to bye none olde cast robes,
  • and so on. In Dan Bartholmew of Bathe, in spite of a variety of stanza forms, some of them elaborate enough, the general effect is still monotonous. Gascoigne is seen at his best in trifles—short poems which do not call for great depth of thought or sustained interest, and in which his excessive fluency is kept within bounds. Even in these he rarely hit upon a pregnant thought or striking phrase; but he succeeded in introducing into English poetry from the Italian models whom he studied (Ariosto seems to have been his especial favourite) a greater ease and smoothness than had been attained by Wyatt and Surrey. The following sonnet is a good example of his characteristic virtues:
  • That selfe same tonge which first did thee entreat
  • To linke thy liking with my lucky love:
  • That trustie tonge must nowe these wordes repeate,
  • I love thee still, my fancie cannot move.
  • That dreadlesse hart which durst attempt the thought
  • To win thy will with mine for to consent,
  • Maintaines that vow which love in me first wrought,
  • I love thee still, and never shall repent.
  • That happie hande which hardely did touch,
  • Thy tender body to my deepe delight:
  • Shall serve with sword to prove my passion such
  • As loves thee still, much more than it can write.
  • Thus love I still with tongue, hand, hart and all,
  • And when I chaunge, let vengeance on me fall.
  • Next to his love poetry, his verses in compliment to the queen are perhaps most worthy of attention, especially those which he wrote for “the princely pleasures at Kenelworth Castle.” He directed his muse, with amazing ingenuousness, to the goal of professional advancement, and this combined with other reasons to prevent any lofty flight or permanent achievement; but, as the first of the Elizabethan court poets, he is notable as the precursor of an important movement.